Janelle Phaneuf’s Directorial Debut is a Revelation

BY CARY GINELL

Just like a position player aspiring to become a manager in baseball, some actors feel compelled to try their hand at directing musicals some day. When it happens, and goes well, the rush is irresistible and many decide to change their goals for a career in the theatre. Janelle Phaneuf has been a prominent presence on the Ventura County scene as a performer, both as an ensemble player as well as in lead roles. Among her performances includes a turn as Tracy Turnblad in High Street Arts Center’s production of Hairspray several years ago. Now, Janelle is having her first taste of directing; her helming Conejo Players’ current production of Godspell is turning out to be an unmitigated success, so we sat down with her after the show’s debut last weekend for a chat concerning her experience. 

VCOS: Had you ever thought about directing before?

JANELLE: It was something that kind of just happened, actually. I started assistant directing with Erin Fagundes. We did Peter Pan together in 2011, I think. That was the first one that we did together. She just said, “Do you want to do this?” And I said, “Sure!” So it just grew from there. We kept doing projects together and I really started to enjoy it. Godspell is a show that I’ve always wanted to have something to do with. I was in it six years ago and since then, I’ve always been really passionate about it. So people kept pushing me to submit and I finally said, OK, I’ll do it.

VCOS: You’ve worked for other theaters in the county, so why was it better to do your first directing effort at Conejo Players?

JANELLE: Conejo Players is really my home theatre, if I had to pick one. It’s very much a supportive environment and very loving, and I’d hear all the time, “If you have any questions, let me know,” so it’s very, very welcoming and easy to feel at home and comfortable while I’m doing my own thing there.

VCOS: Is there one lesson that you’ve learned that you’ve carried with you during this directing process?

JANELLE: I learned a lot from Erin about picking your team. When you pick your team, choose people who are good at what they do. And that’s what I did. I wanted to be able to tell them, “I want it to feel like this” and then let them do their thing. Like Abby Cluster, our choreographer. I would tell her, “I want this to be kind of joyful and fun,” and she’d say, “OK” and then do exactly what I wanted. Rick Steinberg did our set. I told him I wanted two things. I wanted the Godspell face on the back wall, which is revealed at the end, and I wanted it gritty and kind of urban. He created something incredible. So really, it’s all about picking people who do what they do best and letting them do it. 

I’ve worked with Shawn Lanz a lot as my director when I was acting, and he told me to stick to your guns as to your vision. This is what you want and this is what you want your end result to be, and consistently pushing your actors until you get what you want. That’s something that he’s always done with me. He’s always supportive and always there to help me learn, but it’s always, “You can give me more.” 

VCOS: Did you have to handle any conflicts or differences of opinion on how to do things?

JANELLE: Not really. I mean, there’s always stuff that happens, but for the most part, they all gelled together really well and they fell into a really nice groove. 

VCOS: Were you involved in the casting process too?

JANELLE: Oh, absolutely. 

VCOS: How did that feel, being on the other side?

JANELLE: It’s very eye-opening, because you learn very quickly that it’s not just about who can do it. I think as an actor, it’s easy to say, “Well, I could’ve done that.” But to sit back and realize that if this person doesn’t do it, it causes a domino effect and everything else falls apart, so it’s more than just about ability. For me, with Godspell, it was all about energy. I wanted the cast to feel like a community and a family and for us to show that to our audience. At intermission, we invite everybody to come up on stage and be a part of our little community. So it’s all about who will mesh well together. 

VCOS: Did you have to turn down friends for parts?

JANELLE: I did, actually! It’s hard, but I think we all kind of understand. It’s a small cast. We actually cast two more than we thought we were going to. I wanted to cap it at ten, but then we ended up going with twelve. 

VCOS: So there isn’t a set number that the script calls for?

JANELLE: No. You can really do it with as many or as few as you like, as long as you have enough to fill in the songs and the vocal parts. It’s written for ten. When I did it six years ago, we had about twenty people. It was a big cast. I wanted it to be very intimate and tight, so that’s why we ended up going with twelve.

VCOS: How has being in the show helped you as a director?

JANELLE: I think I was able to tell my actors what they could expect, especially with the second act, which is really emotional. I remember sitting down with them and saying, “I know exactly what you’re going through. I did it, too.” And I told them, “I’m asking a lot from you, but I need you to leave your hearts on stage and then pick them up and put them back together because our show isn’t sad. It’s hopeful and it’s triumphant and it’s about a community of people who lose something and go through something so terrible and so tragic, but they are able to pick themselves up and keep going.” And that’s what I wanted the message to be. No matter how bad something gets, you can always pick yourself up.

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Our interview with Janelle will continue next week. Godspell plays at the Conejo Players Theatre in Thousand Oaks through August 2. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar. 

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